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United States v. Adams

United States District Court, N.D. Iowa, Cedar Rapids Division

January 10, 2019





         This matter is before the Court on defendant's motion to dismiss the Indictment. (Doc. 18). The government timely resisted the motion. (Doc. 20). For the following reasons, defendant's motion is denied.


         On August 21, 2018, a grand jury returned an Indictment charging defendant with conspiracy to interfere with commerce by threats and violence, in violation of 18 U.S.C. § 1951. (Doc. 2). The Indictment alleges that “defendant conspired to obtain the property of E.D., namely the Internet domain ‘,' with E.D.'s consent induced by the wrongful use of force, violence and fear.” (Id.). On December 13, 2018, defendant filed the motion to dismiss. Defendant advances four separate grounds on which he asserts that the Indictment must be dismissed: (1) that the federal government lacks the authority to prosecute this case under the Commerce Clause; (2) that an Internet domain name is not “property” within the meaning of the statute; (3) that the facts as alleged constitute only the lesser crime of coercion; and (4) that the crime alleged could not be completed without further acts by other individuals. (Doc. 19). Defendant requests an oral hearing on the matter, but the Court finds that oral hearing is unnecessary.


         Federal Rule of Criminal Procedure 12(b) authorizes pretrial motions to present “any defense, objection, or request that the court can determine without a trial on the merits.” Fed. R. Crim. P. 12(b)(1). “A motion is capable of pretrial determination ‘if trial of the facts surrounding the commission of the alleged offense would be of no assistance in determining the validity' of the motion.” United States v. Turner, 842 F.3d 602, 604-05 (8th Cir. 2016) (quoting United States v. Covington, 395 U.S. 57, 60 (1969)). “[T]o be valid, an indictment must allege that the defendant performed acts which, if proven, constitute the violation of law for which he is charged. If the acts alleged in the indictment do not constitute a violation of law, the indictment is properly dismissed.” United States v. Polychron, 841 F.2d 833, 834 (8th Cir. 1988). “The defense of failure of an indictment to charge an offense includes the claim that the statute apparently creating the offense is unconstitutional.” United States v. Seuss, 474 F.2d 385, 387 n.2 (1st Cir. 1973).


         Defendant mounts an as-applied constitutional challenge to Title 18, United States Code, Section 1951 (the “Hobbs Act”), arguing that the federal government lacks any authority to prosecute this case. (Doc. 19, at 4-9). Defendant asserts that the crime charged in the Indictment “can generally be considered to be a local crime, ” and that “[t]he impact on interstate commerce of the particular actions and acts involved are de minimis.” (Id., at 8). Defendant argues that, because the actions he allegedly took had a minimal impact on interstate commerce, the Commerce Clause does not empower Congress to criminalize it, and that the Tenth Amendment reserves authority over the matter to the states. (Id., at 8-9).

         Article I, Section 8 of the United States Constitution grants Congress the power “[t]o regulate Commerce with foreign Nations, and among the several States, and with the Indian Tribes.” U.S. Const. art. I, § 2, cl. 8. The Supreme Court has defined the scope of this authority:

[T]here are three categories of activity that Congress may regulate under its commerce power: (1) “the use of the channels of interstate commerce”; (2) “the instrumentalities of interstate commerce, or persons or things in interstate commerce, even though the threat may come only from intrastate activities”; and (3) “those activities having a substantial relation to interstate commerce, . . . i.e., those activities that substantially affect interstate commerce.”

Taylor v. United States, 136 S.Ct. 2074, 2079 (2016) (omission in original) (quoting United States v. Lopez, 514 U.S. 549, 558-59 (1995)). Defendant's argument, that the transfer of an Internet domain name has only a minimal effect on interstate commerce, appears to address only the third category. The Court, however, finds that Congress has the power to regulate the transfer of a domain name, and consequently to criminalize obtaining one by threats and/or violence, under all three categories.

         “The term ‘domain name' means any alphanumeric designation which is registered . . . as part of an electronic address on the Internet.” 15 U.S.C. § 1127. “The Internet is an instrumentality and channel of interstate commerce.” United States v. Havlik, 710 F.3d 818, 824 (8th Cir. 2013). “No additional interstate nexus is required when instrumentalities or channels of interstate commerce are regulated.” United States v. Trotter, 478 F.3d 918, 921 (8th Cir. 2007). As a designated electronic address on the Internet, a domain name is “part of ‘a system that is inexorably intertwined with interstate commerce' and thus properly within the realm of Congress's Commerce Clause power.” Id. (quoting United States v. MacEwan, 445 F.3d 237, 245 (3d Cir. 2006)). Accordingly, the federal government has authority to prosecute this case under both Congress's first and second commerce powers.

         Additionally, defendant's argument that this was a local crime with minimal effect on interstate commerce takes too narrow a view of Congress's authority under the third category of Congress's interstate commerce powers. Activities “may be regulated so long as they substantially affect interstate commerce in the aggregate, even if their individual impact on interstate commerce is minimal.” Taylor, 136 S.Ct. at 2079. “When Congress decides that the ‘total incidence' of a practice poses a threat to a national market, it may regulate the entire class.” Gonzales v. Raich, 545 U.S. 1, 18 (2005). In Gonzales, the Supreme Court held that Congress had the power to criminalize the manufacture, sale, and possession of marijuana, even where those activities only occurred within one state, because those activities were part of a national market. 545 U.S., at 32-33. Similarly, although the domain name in this case may have had a minimal effect on interstate commerce (a claim for which ...

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